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Last Defense on Rim of the World

Firefighters try to hold a 14-mile line to protect long-treasured mountain resorts.

October 29, 2003|Geoffrey Mohan and Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writers

For firefighters struggling Tuesday to keep an advancing wall of flame out of Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear, Highway 18 was the last line of defense against fires approaching Southern California's famous lake resorts, and a line they couldn't always hold.

They dug in along the 14-mile east-west stretch between Crestline and Running Springs, on a winding mountain road known as the Rim of the World, 5,000 feet above the valley floor. Behind them was a cluster of communities that since the 1920s has been a weekend playground for Angelenos and a retreat for celebrities and the well-heeled. It is a place all the more valuable for being in the heart of the San Bernardino National Forest.

The flames roared up the steep slopes toward them.

"It's coming up faster than we can get to it," said Dewey Rebbe, part of an ultra-elite New Mexico firefighting squad that joined crews from California and elsewhere Tuesday morning.

Trying to take advantage of a back draft produced by the fire's leading edge, crews started setting backfires along the south side of Highway 18 in Skyforest.

But they started too late.

As they were lighting the fires, an enormous ball of flame from the wildfire rushed up the ravine, cresting just east of them. A wall of fire rose 80 to 100 feet in the air.

The crews leaped into their vehicles, most fleeing west on Highway 18. Several ducked into the parking lot of the Santa's Village amusement park on the north side of the road.

Embers the size of acorns rained down on the asphalt, twinkling in the windows of a faux Swiss-style chalet and landing near the base of a giant candy cane. Spot fires erupted, leaving the lot circled by fire on three sides and the crews cornered.

Two sheriff's deputies in their cruisers, a gas company employee assigned to shut off gas lines, and a food truck headed for Rim of the World High School huddled with the firefighters at the center of the lot.

The food truck's driver, Ted Rehberg, sat behind the steering wheel, shaking his head at the flames. "I haven't been this close before," he said. "It just moved too fast."

The group, joined later by a crew of Department of Corrections inmates, remained trapped in Santa's Village until about 4 p.m.

"I don't want to be stuck here protecting a few burned-out sheds. Your lives are not worth that," National Park Service Capt. Larry Smith told his crew. "We're going to sit here and let it cool down. There's only one way in and one way out."

Firefighters battled exhaustion and the same uncertainty that gripped everyone else in this prized getaway area, which has about 50,000 residents and 19,000 homes.

Lake Arrowhead and its environs are an eclectic enclave of stately stone chateaus, A-frame cottages and cabins, some of which might be best described as glorified shacks. A forest once logged and mined by Mormon pioneers today includes golf courses, shooting ranges, hiking trails and dirt paths where cross-country motorcycle races known as "enduros" are staged.

Mountain residents were ordered to evacuate Tuesday morning as the blaze crept closer. Officials had set "trigger points" to help them decide when that step was necessary, but the fire reached those locations far more quickly than they had expected.

By 9:30 a.m., parents waiting to pick up their children had formed a line extending out the door of the office of North Shore Elementary School

Just before noon, officials ordered the evacuation of the 20,000 residents of Big Bear Valley. At Golden Bear Cottages, one of many small roadside motels, people who had previously fled the fire began making another escape.

U.S. Forest Service Acting Capt. Jackie Caston knelt by the side of the road, a shovel in her hand. She was supervising seven men clearing the roadside east of the Arrowhead Lake turnoff.

"A lot of us are very tired," she said. "Last night, I finally got a little sleep. Only eight hours in the last three days."

Last she heard, her husband was returning from southern Los Angeles County to help her and her three children evacuate, but she feared he would not make it through the roadblocks.

"This is the big one for me," she said. "We have people stretched out as far as we can. It's really starting to hit home."

By nightfall, the firefighters had endured a series of setbacks. Even veterans of California wildfires said they had rarely encountered one as challenging and maddening as this.

Yet, although numerous hot spots lit up the forest north of Highway 18, firefighters were still holding the main body of the fire at bay south of the road, thanks to a determined response and a favorable wind.

David Shew's unit helped beat back the flames that spilled onto the north side of Highway 18 after the main fire overtook the back-burn.

Afterward, weary to the point of being punch-drunk, Shew, 45, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection battalion chief from Napa, proudly took pictures of the scene with his digital camera. They had even saved Santa's Village, he joked, showing an image of the park's sign on fire.

"This was a glitch," said U.S. Forest Service Battalion Chief Randy Clauson of the botched back-burn. "It slowed us down, but we're just about ready to start up again."

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